Chicago’s Charter High Schools: Organizational Features, Enrollment, School Transfers, and Student Performance

Julia A. Gwynne and Paul T. Moore :

This study—the Consortium’s first in-depth look at charter high schools—examines four key dimensions of charter high schools in Chicago Public Schools (CPS): school organization and policies; incoming skills and characteristics of charter high school enrollees; school transfers; and student performance. It expands the existing research base on charter schools in important ways by moving beyond test scores to look at a range of outcomes, and by examining variation among charter high schools.

This study finds differences between charter and non-charter high schools in CPS in terms of students’ incoming characteristics, performance in high school, and performance on post-secondary outcomes. It also finds variation on outcomes across charter schools. The study finds charter high schools in Chicago enroll students with higher eighth-grade attendance but similar or lower eighth-grade test scores than non-charter high schools. Once enrolled, students in charter high schools reported more challenging instruction, had higher attendance, and had higher test scores, on average, compared to students in non-charter high schools with similar attendance and test scores in the middle grades. Rates of four-year college enrollment and enrollment in more selective colleges were higher, on average, for students at charter schools than similar students at non-charter high schools. Using the five essentials framework to measure school climate, the study finds, on average, CPS charter high schools looked similar to non-charter, non-selective schools on some dimensions of organizational capacity, such as leadership, but looked quite different on other dimensions, such as preparation for post-secondary.

Lauren FitzPatrick:

Looking at data for students who attended high school between 2010 and 2013, researchers found that about one in every four ninth graders who started at a charter high school ended up at another Chicago school by 12th grade, compared to about one in six kids at a CPS-run school.

“I would say it’s a noteworthy difference and definitely something that should be investigated further,” lead author Julia A. Gwynne, said, adding that the transfers occurred not only for low-achieving students — whom charter critics suspected of being counseled out to keep numbers up — but also for high-achievers. The transfer rates were highest for students at charters with weak academic records — or ones too new to have any track record, where perhaps parents who opted into school choice continued to look for their child’s best option, Gwynne said.